We Need to Start Caring About Caring Work

The pandemic has been a serious wake-up call regarding the fragility of our socio-economic systems, laying bare many of unresolved inequities associated with race, health, ability, and gender. While many hope that life will return to “normal” sometime soon, this normal has largely been a charade – a dance, choreographed in laws, policies, and other social behaviours that have simply reinforced the way men’s lives and livelihoods are privileged over those of women.

This is crystalized in the growing discourse of how women will be “set back” by the pandemic because of child-care issues. Consider articles relating to this that appear in the Washington Post (Coronavirus child-care crisis will set women back a generation”), The Chronicle of Higher Education (“Fall’s Looming Child-Care Crisis”), and the Globe and Mail (“Parents, trapped: Lack of child care could undermine economic recovery and hurt women, but the solution is expensive”). As Jessica Valenti pointedly observes in her Medium article, the problem only impacts women more profoundly because men do not equally share the burden of caregiving. When children cannot attend school or daycare, it is the lower wage earner (woman), the caregiver (woman), the household manager (woman) who is significantly and negatively impacted.  It is clear that the social systems that enable women to engage in waged labour continue to exist on a foundation built on patriarchal systems that made space for women but were not created in equal partnership with them. Otherwise, we would see a world where child-care and education are financially prioritized and where men and women equally share the burden of crises like this pandemic. Instead, we exist in a world that is entirely dependent on unpaid caring and service work.

Workplaces are sites of significant inequity, despite a century of unionizing, legislating, and educating. Workplaces have largely evolved from systems that benefit men, having to later make space for women (largely because they were a source of cheap labour that could be “controlled”).  Librarianship provides a stellar example of how women could enter pre-formed “professions” that were historically rooted in male leadership and design (and, like many other fields, also white and middle class)[i] that has influenced its contemporary shape and struggle. For instance, this history has generated workplaces that are largely devoid of feminist approaches to the work and to the ways this work is organized. Hiring practices, scheduling, promotion, and the hierarchical power structures reinforce patriarchal (and racist and ableist) practices that narrow the possibilities for the profession and its workers.

The pandemic brings this into sharp focus when employees are expected to adhere to regimented work schedules for the purpose of demonstrating productivity, asked to “pitch in” and do more without additional remuneration, or expected to engage in completely new forms of work at home with few additional tools and resources. In addition to their work, employees must juggle limited daycare services (that are already chronically expensive and hard to access), children in modified schooling (schooling that is used to do so much more than deliver curriculum), partners also working remotely in spaces that were never designed for such activities, care for other family relations, and cope with the general pandemic anxieties. Our existing social systems, always at work, make it seem that these struggles are inevitable in the face of our current crisis. However, if caring work was privileged and valued at the same level as economic conquest and if workplaces were designed to better balance the needs of workers with those they serve, the social impact of the pandemic (and our responses to it) would be focused more directly on limiting its spread and caring for the ill. Instead, we are pushed into tight corners where we scramble to hang on to our homes, our jobs, and our sanity.

When our employers talk out of both sides, telling us “we are in this together” and “we will get through this” while also demanding that we show up to meetings (more now than ever) and continue to produce pre-COVID volumes of work without any (or very limited) additional support, it becomes clear that the problems of gender equity remain unresolved. In a world where data collection and analysis has largely ignored women[ii], it is perhaps not surprising that economic discourse completely ignores the fact that 75% of all UNPAID caring work is performed by women[iii] and that world economies would collapse without it.   

Libraries, as workplaces, have been complicit in the reification of gender norms, harming women as well as racialized, disabled, and gender diverse people. It is why we continue to struggle with creating spaces where transgender communities feel welcome and why library workers who work with children or perform front-line service work continue to be devalued. The pandemic has merely highlighted what has always existed for those working in libraries.

Those who use library services experience most of their connections with front-line staff. Most of these folks are the lowest paid members of the library workforce and possess the least amount of power when it comes to policy development. They are also mostly women and often engaged in precarious work (auxiliary, casual, contract work). However, many are also part of unions. For example, CUPE represents more than 22,000 library workers in Canada. Unions have been extremely busy during the pandemic, working with employers to represent and protect workers. Even though these organizations can help mitigate some harms, their power is contained within legislation and policies that favour systems that are deliberately constructed to silence the experiences of gendered, racialized, and disabled people. It is simply not enough to assume that unions can single-handedly represent and protect the interests of our communities. Rather, it is our collective responsibility to make a conscious effort to see what has always been here/there and confront the assumptions that shape our inequitable world and, specifically, our immediate working environments. Union engagement is one approach but years of anti-union rhetoric and corporate work-arounds has weakened their power and influence.

As we face the economic fallout of the pandemic, there is deep apprehension about library budgets. There will be a tremendous push for austerity and decisions on spending that will be informed by what is valued. If the current phases of reopening during the ongoing pandemic are any indication of what we can expect, substantive change may be undermined by the urge to “unsee” what has been revealed to us, to turn our backs on the ugly realities that frame our social world and to double-down on preserving systems of power built around the worldview and experiences of men.

The risks of inaction can include:

  • Severe job losses for professions numerically dominated by women,[iv] many of whom are precariously employed.
  • Unpaid caring work will continue to increase, falling, largely, to women.
  • Children experiencing educational, emotional, and material setbacks.
  • Ongoing gendering of labour that limits women’s opportunities (significantly compounded for those who are also racialized, disabled, etc.)
  • The loss of opportunity for economic prosperity that stems from a fully engaged and empowered population.

Ways of taking action can include:

  • Advocating and developing gender-aware work policies and practices in the workplace. These take into account the challenges associated with unpaid labour and make necessary accommodations for staff like flexible work schedules, family leave days, adjustments to evaluation processes, etc.
  • Refusing to accept the inevitability of women having to “pick up the slack” with caregiving. Women are only disadvantaged because we refuse to openly acknowledge and change that men are not sharing caring work equally.
  • Compensating work in service and caring industries like we value them. We need to examine how it is that those who oversee or “manage” others are valued, monetarily and socially, more than those who do the bulk of the work.
  • Supporting unions. Get involved when and where you can. They are far from perfect organizations but the groundwork that they have laid should not be thrown away. Find ways to modernize them to be more inclusive, diverse, and relevant. Use them as conduits for turning up the volume on these issues. Even if you are not a member of one, learn more about them.
  • Acknowledging that the “normal” pre-COVID world was far from ideal and that there is an opportunity to demand change while the broken systems continue to be so visible. Changes can include the prioritization of service industries in corporate and government budgeting.

* WIDE provides a number of interesting articles relating to feminism and the pandemic. https://wideplus.org/2020/03/26/covid-19-crisis-from-a-feminist-perspective-overview-of-different-articles-published/


[i] Stauffer, Suzanne. 2016. The work calls for men: The social construction of professionalism and professional education for librarianship. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science, 57(4), 311-324. doi:10.12783/issn.2328-2967/57/4/5

[ii] I highly recommend the 2019  work of Caroline Criado Perez, Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, on this matter.

[iii] Moreira da Silva, Jorge. 2019. Why you should care about unpaid care work. OECD. https://oecd-development-matters.org/2019/03/18/why-you-should-care-about-unpaid-care-work/

[iv] See the European Institute for Gender Equality: https://eige.europa.eu/news/coronavirus-puts-women-frontline

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